FAQ - Career in Medical Illustration
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
I often receive emails from either high school or undergraduate students asking about the field of medical illustration. Whether they are just curious or trying to figure out if this career path is right for them, I have complied a short list of frequently asked questions.
1. What does a medical illustrator do?
The short answer is draw pictures of hearts and skeletons all day. The long answer is a lot of things, depending on your strengths and desires! Medical illustrator is an umbrella term, however, we are more accurately biomedical communicators. This means we bring visual aspects to education in science and medicine. The visuals (and audio) can be anything from illustration, animation, infographics, interface design, exhibit design, games and apps, storyboarding, and more. If you enjoy the company of others, you can work with a team of concept artists, pitching ideas to pharmaceutical companies. If you are a self-proclaimed introvert, you can sit in front of the computer and draw all day with limited client contact. There are a lot of options, as long as you have decided you love art + science, you are on the right trajectory.
2. How do I know medical illustration is the right path for me?
You love art + science. You love biology class and you tend to doodle sketches of what you are learning in your notebook. You are a visual learner. You are obsessed with detail and perfection. You think you should pursue a career in science or medicine, but you always come back to drawing as a hobby, such as cartooning, figure drawing club, designing yearbook covers, etc. You are creative in many areas. You love learning about science, dinosaurs, insects, anatomy and pathology (disease). Maybe you didn’t know this field existed and a mentor told you about it because he/she thought you would be a good fit. You are here reading this post, because at some point you googled “medical illustrator” and wanted to learn more about it.
3. Does a medical illustrator make a decent living?
Wrong question to ask. I know doctors and lawyers who make a lot of money and they are miserable. Aren’t you interested in this career because it utilizes your strengths and passions? Don’t you want a job that you wake up and enjoy going to work? Do not pursue medical illustration because you think it is a subspecialty of art that offers more career options and pays better. It is a competitive niche. You can make just as much or more being a commercial or fine artist. A lot of my peers work full-time jobs and also freelance on the side for supplemental income. You can work as little or as much as you want. You will enter the field slowly and grow into a shark. The sharks make big money, but just as you would except from a local ecosystem, if can only support a handful of sharks. So you have to learn and excel, and eventually outcompete the others.
4. How do I prepare to be accepted into an undergrad/graduate program for medical illustration?
Create your backstory. Hundreds of applicants will have drawing ability and an interest in science + art. You will stand out with a backstory. Maybe you go to the local historical museum and ask to draw from specimens in the archives, because you are obsessed with fossils. Maybe a topic interests you so much, you want to learn about it on your own and create visuals to help yourself and others learn. Maybe you find a mentor and establish a relationship and career shadow her/him. Maybe you are a self-taught artist from online learning channels such as YouTube or Patreon. Maybe you have an idea of a BETTER way to visualize something. While you are creating your backstory, continue to take art and science classes, especially figure drawing and anatomy.
5. What kind of pieces should I put in my portfolio?
Some programs don’t even want to see “medical illustration” visuals. You will learn all that stuff in graduate school. What they want to see is your basic skills at observation, blocking in shapes, differentiating textures, understanding color and value, and creating a successful composition. Have a really strong figure drawing piece, either grayscale or limited color palette. Have a great still life, with a variety of textures, such as glass, fabric, pieces from nature, maybe something juicy! Have a strong traditional media piece, either from pastels, watercolor, or acrylics. You can include digital pieces, however, some students are more successful with art principles using natural media. Digital is a whole new ball game, and these skills you learn within the program itself.
If you school has an art career fair and you are local (within 2 hours driving of Chicago), I would be happy to come speak to students about my career as a medical illustrator. Please email at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.